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0:01 Lorna: Hello visionary people of EntheoNation. I am here today with a very special guest who I met over ten years ago in the Peruvian Amazon in Iquitos, at the very first ayahuasca conference started by Allan Shoemaker. So my special guest today is Dennis McKenna who is the brother of the late Terence McKenna.
Now, Dennis is an ethnopharmacologist. He’s the founding board member of the Heffter Research Institute and the assistant professor of the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota. Dennis has studied plant hallucinogens for over thirty years and with ayahuasca as his specialty of focus. So in this episode today Dennis will share with us his thoughts about ayahuasca and human destiny.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Dennis.
1:11 Dennis: Thanks you Lorna for asking me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
1:16 Lorna: So I am very intrigue by your professional history and your bio says you’ve been studying plant hallucinogens for over thirty years. So I’d love to discover how you got into all of that and which plants you’ve had the opportunity to study.
1:36 Dennis: Well like – that’s a long story but like a lot of little brothers, I guess I was led down the primrose path by my big brother Terence. You know back in the 60’s we share an intense interest in psychedelics and that was kind of the beam of the day that was what was happening but we were very sort of dissatisfied with the sort of you know, the late 60’s social context. That was like- there was no model for psychedelics in our society and when LSD came along it sort of was drop like a bomb into the middle of society and suddenly there was the only spokesman for it was Timothy Leary, and he kind of have his own agenda and he was really as clueless as everybody else. And so we were excited when we discovered that there is actually a shamanic tradition or rather the use of this plant medicines that many groups, especially the new world have been using this thing for thousands of years in their shamanic practices.
2:50 So we figured well if we’re serious about psychedelics we have to go down there and talk to these gentlemen and sometimes ladies who use this plant medicines in the context of their own traditional medicines. So that’s what led us to go to South America for the first time in 1971. And we were looking for a very obscure hallucinogen that no one’s ever heard of or a few people, even today I’ve heard of called oo-koo-he, derived from a completely different set of plants than ayahuasca but a similar pharmacology in a sense that it has DMT which is a main psychedelic component but it’s an orally active form of DMT like ayahuasca. And so we were looking for that plant because our experiences with synthetic DMT in Berkeley in the 60’s were amazing but not satisfying in a sense that the only word was amazing. We couldn’t come out, come back with any real information from those experiences so we were motivated to go down and find a natural form of DMT that would last longer so that we can- that was our assumption, that it would last longer so that we could actually kind of stick around in that dimension and see what was going on because if you’ve taken synthetic DMT and you know it’s a very short experience. There’s a whole lot going on and it’s quite overwhelming but it’s very hard to get a handle on it and bring much back that’s useful other than “oh wow” or something like that.
4:33 So we were motivated to go to South America to look for oo-koo-he. At the time, the pharmacology and chemistry of ayahuasca wasn’t very well understood. It wasn’t even clear that it was DMT that you know, in about the same time we were doing this work, all the work on the add mixtures, the importance of the add mixture plants, chacruna and chacropanga and these other DMT containing add mixtures was just being sorted out by Schultes, R.E. Schultes, the famous botanist and his graduate students. And then if you’ve read my book or any of Terence’s book, you’ll know that we went to this place called La Chorrera in Colombia in the Colombian Amazon in search of oo-koo-he.
5:23 Lorna: So who uses this oo-koo-he? And how did they use it?
5:24 Dennis: Well, it’s the Witoto Indians primarily. The Witoto groups and a couple of closely related groups. And that’s why we went to La Chorrera because that was their ancestral home was you know- and so we figured that’s where we have to go to find it. They use it in that group.
5:46 Oo-koo-he is a dying tradition as indeed the cultures themselves serve a highly impacted- if you want to look at an indigenous tribe that’s in the process of basically falling apart under the impact of global forces, the Witoto are a good case study for that. So when we went there, even at that time the knowledge of the use of oo-koo-he was known only to a few people and it’s kind of a shamanic secret and it wasn’t necessarily used for spiritual exploration, it was more like it was used in sorcery and that sort of thing. I mean the way that oo-koo-he was used in that culture was not in a particularly nice way. I mean it was a way for one shaman to put the flame on another shaman.
6:41 The traditional context, the way that ayahuasca is use in medicinal culture- you know it’s not all fuzzy bunny and happy hippies, I mean you know.
6:49 Lorna: There’s some serious sorcery going on.
6:53 Dennis: Serious sorcery.
6:54 Lorna: Hexes and counter hexes
6:54 Dennis: Right.
6:57 Lorna: And energetic darts and like making people sick. I mean it’s- I feel blessed that I did not get caught up in anything sketchy in Peru and most of my Ayahuasca experiences in Brazil where it’s almost like so much, much more gentle and safe and Disneyland like in a certain way I guess.
7:23 Dennis: Yeah, in Brazil though you often encounter in the context of these religions like the Santo Daime and the UDV and it’s not really a traditional use, they have adopted ayahuasca and they use it I a sacramental way, but in the context of what essentially a Christian practice and they’re use some of this much more like the way that a native Americans use peyote. I mean it’s a much more sacramental thing it’s not this… they don’t even admit that it’s a medicine, I mean they don’t even like the notion that it’s a medicine and of course because then that means “oh it’s a drug” and they’re seriously interested in denying that it is a drug, you can’t call a sacrament a drug, that’s insulting.
8:14 But the shamans in the Peruvian tradition are veered of course it’s a medicine, it’s all about medicine and you can use medicine for harm or for good. And now of course we’re seeing that this mestizo tradition of vegetalismo or curanderismo or whatever you’d like to call it is being transformed again in response to the western influence so people are modifying their practices because they have a clientele, they have this foreigners that are coming down, paid them more money than they ever imagine, they’d ever see to do this ceremony, so they’re tailoring their practices to that, and really sort of not emphasizing the sorcery and all of that which still goes on but that’s not it. They sort of created this new agey neo shamanism…
9:15 Lorna: Kind of like the Ayahuasca retreat you know for psychological break troughs and healing and therapy, that kind of thing. I mean, the groups of people that are gathering together, I mean with my experience with the tribes granted was that if it was a group it was like the village getting together or when you want to see the shaman when you’re sick. And it was like you and the shaman. So this groups of peoples spending a week doing a dieta seems like a fairly phenomenon would you say?
9:44 Dennis: Yeah, it’s a new phenomenon. It’s really only gotten- I mean it sort of started out this way. There were a few ayahuasca pilgrims early on- I mean I guess I was one when I went to do my graduate work on 1981 but it really didn’t get rolled in until the early 90’s and it really didn’t turn into a flood of people into a Iquitos really probably Allen’s conference had a lot to do with it and because it was noticed by lots of people before that in 1991, Luis Eduardo and Pablo Amaringo’s publication of the book Ayahuasca Visions was another catalyst. That book was on the shelves of many book stores and people with an interest in psychedelics, that was maybe the first time when that they really encountered Ayahuasca in a very attractive way. The book is beautiful, Pablo’s paintings are lovely and it presents in a very good light and it’s in English. So it brought in to the attention of a lot people and that move- there was a catalytic force in the development of this ayahuasca tourism phenomenon. Which I do not think is necessarily a bad thing, I think it’s actually quite a good thing. But there are issues, I mean many time our global culture interfaces with the fragile more or less indigenous culture, there are going to be a sparks and there are going to be abuses on both sides. And it’s complicated.
11:33 Lorna: I want to bookmark that conversation because it’s a very deep conversation. I definitely want to have it but I also want to go back to time to when you were in the jungle in the 70’s researching oo-koo-he. Now we kind of segue way into the sorcery of it all. I’m kind of curious, is it a snuff? Is it a beverage or you know?
12:00 Dennis: No, no.
12:03 Lorna: A lot of people take oo-koo-he. What was that like for you?
12:05 Dennis: It’s a paste, it’s made from the sap of various species of trees in the genus Virola. Virola, V-I-R-O-L-A. It’s a member of the nutmeg family and produces a red-ish brown sap. Now many tribes.
12:23 Lorna: Any relationship to yopo?
12:27 Dennis: Exactly. It’s the same plant.
12:29 Lorna: Oh, I did that as a snuff actually last year.
12:31 Dennis: Right. Many groups uses it as a snuff. So they powder it down, they completely dry it out, and then they powder it up and then they take it as a snuff. This is normal acting form where they basically, they just concentrate it into the sticky golly stuff, they make little pills out of it. Actually pretty big pills. You know, like that. And then you take it orally. And it’s orally.
12:59 Lorna: What does it do?
13:00 Dennis: Well, that’s complicated. It’s a- because the tradition is degraded and the knowledge is lost, the knowledge actually how to make it and which plants to use is sort of dying and so this was a focus of my graduate studies when I went back in 1981 to investigate it as a graduate student, I didn’t go back to La Chorrera but I went to another Witoto population center in Peru and the real Ambia’cho, but what I found was that most of the people that I interviewed we sort of remember my grandfather was into this, I don’t really know. I sort of remember how to do it. And they would take a crack at it and they would make it for us and we bow as say them. And we’ve got about seven samples from seven different shamans, three of them were sort of active, one of them was highly active and the other were sort of completely inactive. So it’s a difficult thing just to study but.
14:22 Lorna: Do you remember what the highly active sample that you had did to you?
14:31 Dennis: Yes, yes. I do, I wrote it down, I kept notes actually and it wasn’t pleasant. It was sort of like an overdose of 5-MeO-DMT.
14:43 Lorna: That’s scary actually.
14:46 Dennis: It was kind of scary. I was convince at some point in the proceedings that I was probably not going to survive. But I did of course, most people do these things you know.
15:01 Lorna: That’s when you have to tell yourself “oh my god, I just have to write it out.”
15:07 Dennis: Yeah, but when I got it back to the lab and actually did the analysis on this sample, it turned out- yes it was in fact 5-MeO-DMT at very high levels and very little else. I mean the typical spectrum with the virola’s is there’s DMT, and fivemethoxy and other trip to made to main derivatives. But there’s a great deal of chemical variation between species and all that. So that’s another reason I think why this knowledge- it’s tricky, you really have to know the right species and how to prepare them in order to have an effective preparation. And that knowledge is lost, it’s not as simple to make as Ayahuasca.
15:52 Lorna: So this source experience with oo-koo-he was what opened your world to psycho active plant medicines? From there you just kept.
16:02 Dennis: No. no, no, no. No, I had had- well I have to go back to 1971 at La Chorrera. When my brother and I arrived at La Churrera we were looking for oo-koo-he and we thought that’s the real mystery, what we found at La Churrera was that it was a place about two hundred acres have been cleared and they had zebu cattle brought in, the white humpback’s cattle so out of every cow pie were this beautiful clusters of psilocybin mushrooms, and we knew what those were, we had no experience with then, very little experience, but we knew what they were and we thought at the time “oh that’s great, these are around, we can enjoy this while we’re waiting for the oo-koo-he to show up.” And that’s the real mystery. We were quickly disabused of that notion. Because the psilocybin, the psilocybin mushrooms turned out to be- for us, the real mystery. And now I have to plug my book, because this is a long story, it’s all laid out in my memoir, the brotherhood of the screaming abyss. And it’s a long and complicated story and I’m afraid if I try to explain it all here we won’t have time for anything else.
17:22 Lorna: Okay so we’ll definitely experience that part of your history through the books.
17:28 Dennis: Yeah.
17:30 Lorna: So you’ve studied plant hallucinogens for over thirty years. What is your current work now with plant hallucinogens?
17:37 Dennis: Couple of different things since I’ve been working, hosting these retreats, organizing these retreats in the sacred valley. That’s partly what I’m doing. But I’m still very interested in the chemistry and pharmacology of ayahuasca and I’m very interested in the admixture plants. And ayahuasca existed so that at the center of the whole pharmacopeia of plants, they’re the well-known ones, the DMT containing plants that are used almost always in the making of ayahuasca, it’s really not ayahuasca without those but there about a hundred and fifty species, other species of plants that are associated with ayahuasca, they are either taken with ayahuasca or they’re used to diet before/after taking ayahuasca. A lot of these plants are not well investigated and.
18:29 Lorna: And they also have DMT?
18:32 Dennis: Nobody knows. No they don’t. They don’t, and that’s the reason- that’s what I mean. They’re pharmacologically active but their chemistry is either completely unknown or rather poorly known so I need- And a lot of these have the reputation of being hallucinogens or psychedelics in their own right so I’m interested in investigating that. And that’s kind of what I’m focusing on now. That’s a whole ethnobotany- you know- there’s two or three PHD thesis here for some enthusiastic graduate student if I ever find one to do this work. I think that’s interesting. And then the other side, my other interest is in the clinical work with ayahuasca.
19:13 We discuss the difficulties during that work here with Ayahuasca but I have said, because of the FDA and because of these silly restrictions on plant medicines, but I’ve been urging, I’ve been advocating and urging my colleagues to say “why do we need the FDA for? Why won’t we just step out of that whole box and do the work in Peru?” where ayahuasca is recognized as a national patrimony, it’s legal and sell them the whole regulatory frame work is very different. And you can do good, well structured, well designed clinical studies with ayahuasca in Peru. And actually it’s probably better from an ethical stand point because you’re not taking an indigenous plant medicine and ripping it out of its context and turning it over to the pharmaceutical industry which I don’t really want to see happen. Actually I don’t think there’s much chance of it, you could pay them to get interested in ayahuasca. Unless they saw that there was money to be made, I don’t really think there is, but anyway, I.
20:23 Lorna: I’m curious, why not?
20:25 Dennis: Why don’t they think there’s money to be made?
20:28 Lorna: I mean, you know, it seems like it’s such a powerful plant. There could be so many therapeutic benefits to ayahuasca maybe if they were to drive some type of compound from it that is effective in treating depression, I’m kind of curious why western medicine is not interested in this plant.
20:45 Dennis: Well, because for numerous reasons. For one thing, the chemistry and pharmacology is well understood, these compounds are known, DMT is, beta carbolines, there’s no patents to be have of these. And the fact is the pharmaceutical industry is not interested in medicines that you might take two or three times in your lifetime. There’s no profit there. They want you to take medicines that you take four times a day for the rest of your life, right? Because you know, their real agenda is to make money. It happens to help people, that’s fine. But that’s not the primary agenda. The primary agenda is to make money. So there’s no business model for psychedelics in that sense. The business model that may emerge is around these centers, the idea that you can establish a place where people can come and either with shamanic guidance or even psychotherapeutic guidance, people can have these experiences and benefit from that and address problems that they may have like PTSD, addictions, depressions and these sorts of things or just spiritual exploration, but the idea you created, a safe place where this can be done, that’s the whole rational behind these treatment centers or these retreat centers I should say. And what I want to do since I insist for whatever reason that there should be at least a little bit of science behind these things, I want to do some fairly structured and fairly well designed clinical studies in Peru for PTSD. And that’s an obvious therapeutic target and there are lot of people suffering and that would be the first one, there are others as well but that’s kind of the one that we can approach. So I expect to get those that study underway in the next year to eighteen months. Something like that. I mean there have been, you may have seen the piece on CNN with Lisa Ling.
23:09 Lorna: I’ve missed that actually but – I first saw her video documentaries or investigations years ago when she was a reporter or an independent journalist for current TV. She spent time in the Amazon actually exploring just kind of a drug trafficking and other topics there so it wouldn’t surprise me that she’d actually do something about Ayahuasca given that she spent lot of time in the Amazon, sure it would have come across her radar. So what was that episode about? Because I missed it.
23:50 Dennis: Well, she- I advice the producers of the show, which is an independent film company called Part Two Pictures. Good people, good journalist, really trying to do a good job. I advise them quite extensively before they went down. They basically ignored all my advice. They went to a place I’ve never heard of, outside Iquitos and they have some vets with them, they worked with a guy named Ryan LeCompte who you may have heard of. He’s founded an organization called Vets for Entheogenic Therapy and he took some of his people down, I think about eight people with him who had been diagnose with PTSD and they had a session and I think they had more than one but they only filmed one and not definitive.
24:52 Most people felt that it was beneficial for them but it’s not like there were miracle cures or anything, that’s not the way these things work but it was an interesting piece. It would have been the one I’ve made but I was just impress that CNN for whatever reason was bold enough to put these on and actually show ayahuasca in a fairly positive light. I think people that watched it are either had a positive impression or kind of were scratching their heads but I don’t think people had a negative impression. It wasn’t like “oh my god, these people are coming down and taking a psychedelic drug.” And that’s often what you get in the mainstream media.
25:42 Lorna: Yeah, I know where Hollywood portrayals of ayahuasca as some kind of crazy making drug that allows you to gain control over stray cats and make them kill your victim at will. That was sort of what I saw in The X Files and I was just like “this is so NOT ayahuasca.”
26:08 Dennis: So not ayahuasca and it’s a symptom of I think our culture, it’s a symptom of what a distorted lens, if you want to use that term that people look through who are not familiar with the culture. I mean to them these are strange people, strange exotic culture kind of scary and then they have this beer brew that taste terrible and makes people go nuts. And you know the scene, this is not how it is at all.
26:48 Lorna: Well I think it’s a good thing that there’s more in a neutral or positive accounts of ayahuasca in the mainstream media so I definitely see that it’s alone, it’s actually what I think is really resulting in more global awareness about ayahuasca so you know gosh maybe ten years ago no one knew ayahuasca was, and now it seems like I’m meeting so many people who want to have an ayahuasca experience or other people who have spent some time in the jungle and now serving ayahuasca which I have opinions about and so it seems like it’s definitely making its way into the global community and I’m curious to know what your thoughts are on this in terms of how that happened and whether or not it’s a good thing.
27:43 Dennis: You love to ask the multi-level questions don’t you? Which is fine but they’re complex so it takes time to unpack them but.
27:58 Lorna: Okay, let’s try to unpack this.
27:59 Dennis: But what you have said is absolutely true, it’s making its way on to a global stage. And I view it actually, personally this is not a scientific view but I’m not always a scientist, I’m a scientist every other Tuesday or whatever, but in the personal view I think this is a manifestation of this long co-evolutionary relationship that ayahuasca’s had with the human species. I mean humans have a co-evolution, humans have a symbiotic relationship if you will with any plant species that is useful to us. That does not have to be psychoactive, I mean we have a symbiotic relationship with corn or other plants but the plants that contain these neuro active chemicals are kind of special because they are the teacher plants. Right? And they are the ones that in the context of indigenous cultures in South America they call them. These are the plants that teach. And in fact they do teach and what they’re trying to teach us is wake up, basically.
29:10 Wake up you monkeys because you’re wrecking the planet. And I view it as that ayahuasca’s emerged on to the global stage almost out of desperation. I feel like it’s been happy to stay in Amazon and be sort of left to the indigenous people to look after but now things are getting desperate and so it needs to get out to a wider audience and so it’s gone global. Between its power, coupled with the power of the Internet, and you’ll see this phenomenon emerging, it’s suddenly it’s decided it’s got- I’m anthropomorphizing it, obviously – but in some sense I think this is kind of what the biosphere, the Gaian mind if you will is putting this forward to our species and saying “here’s our delegate from our community species that are really concerned about you guys because you don’t seem to be able to wake up and so wake up already and understand a few things.” I think this is main message that ayahuasca’s bringing forth in this co-evolutionary sense, now we’re looking at a small slice of time, right? I mean co-evolution is a process that unfolds over millennia and many millennia, it’s a slow process. We look at – ayahuasca’s only been known to western scientist since the 1850’s and so we’re looking at a very small slice of time that it’s been known to the Western mind if you will, and so you can’t draw too many conclusions about what’s happening in this historical juncture. I think there are going to be rough spots. Right? And there clearly are rough spots. I mean some of these centers are not places you’d send your sister to. There’s a lot of abuse of women, there’s a lot of power tripping, there’s a lot of weird brews that you know what’s in them and in any kind of cult situation and these are kind of cultist there’s often a person who is attracted to the power and they come at it from a power standpoint, they want to control people, they want to be like a guru, except they’re the shaman. If I accounted a shamans who work from that, I don’t know what you call it, operating mode – paradigm – I’ll run the other way. What I want to see in a shaman is guy or a gal who is humble, because the humility tells me that they’ve learned from the medicine, so they’ve learned that there’s nothing to be erg and about, there’s nothing to- because what ayahuasca teaches you or at least what it’s thought me over many, many years of using it is I don’t know shit. That’s the lesson. That’s what it teaches you. Remember that you don’t know shit. And I hope I can use that word in a family podcast but the basic.
32:25 Lorna: We’ll have to mark it “explicit” on iTunes.
32:29 Dennis: Okay, alright. But really that’s the message. The message is remember that you don’t know very much. And remember also that you’re not running things. Right? You monkey’s only think you’re running things. We’re not running things, we’re part of nature. We don’t own nature, it’s not here for us to exploit, and it’s here for us to be part of and to be nurtured by and for us to nurture nature to the extent that we can without fucking it up, without destroying it. And that’s the message that’s trying to propagate to humanity, I think on a global scale are kind of these basic re-understandings about our relationship to nature and the fact that you know, we’re part of it and we have- now we’re part of the problem, we have to become part of the solution or we’re not going to survive. Nature will get along fine without us. So I’m not concerned about the survival of life on earth, at least not right away, although we are dealing with some pretty powerfully destructive technologies that- we could actually undermined the conditions on earth so it is in hospitable to all life, I don’t think we’re quite there yet, I think we’ll be gone long before that. But the sad part is, why should we? If we just change our consciousness, and this is what these medicines are giving us the chance to do, if we open ourselves to learning and re-understanding that we have to change how we view nature and we can’t do that without changing how we view each other, and how we view ourselves and all this fundamental consciousness shifts that ayahuasca can help us with. And so I guess I kind of answer the question do I think it’s a good thing, yes, I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s a part of this evolutionary process.
34:37 Lorna: So with the acceleration of ayahuasca on the global scene, what do you think that’s going to do for human society and evolution in the next fifty to a hundred years? Will this make us, will this phenomenon make us wiser or more sustainable? Or do you think that it’s going to result into a big backlash from the powers that be? Which is another threat altogether.
35:15 Dennis: Which is.
35:16 Lorna: Awakening part, and there’s of course the powers that be that threaten by the awakening but I’m hoping that the awakening can reach more people so that those who are in a position to make change from within can do that so that it doesn’t end up being some Occupied movement where the folks get together en masse and it seems like nothings changing.
35:44 Dennis: Yeah, I mean what you say I could have said exactly the same thing, I mean hopefully this co-evolutionary relationship after we get through the bumps and after we learn how to use it in a way that is supportive and life affirming and all that and not in the service of some cult, some power agenda or whatever. Then hopefully it would make use wiser and more compassionate and more compassionate for each other and for nature and then we’ll foster this shift in consciousness. Which we desperately need because if we don’t wise up, we don’t wise up and fast, we’re not going to be able to make the global changes that we need to, to ensure that we survive and really that nature survive. So we need to use this medicine and it’s offering itself freely in a way. So we need to take best advantage of that if possible. Now, as far as the push back from the powers that be, I think one way to avoid that is, and one of the things that are important as you’ve said, it’s inherently subversive, ayahuasca is. So the power is that you need to get it into the hands, into the gullets of people who are in a position to make a change. Right? The thought leaders, the financial leaders, the corporate leaders, the government leaders, all these people who are not necessarily bad people, I mean they’ve just been involved in this bad situation for so long that ultimately I think ayahuasca can change hearts and minds, we know that it does, and it needs to change the hearts and minds of the people who are in the position to get them propagate that thing and avoid the Occupy Wall Street mentality where you’ve got to a group of marginalized people who really want things to change but are basically powerless to make that happen you got to get it to the people that can make it happen.
38:06 Another reason why this centers in South America are so important or wherever they are because the center I’ve worked with, I mean I can bring groups down to this place Willka T’ika and sitting in the room. There is financial capacity and corporate capacity, half a trillion dollars sitting in the room, not the people’s values are based only on money, you know what I mean, there’s. So even people in the quarters of power in governments and corporations and wherever, they also sense that we do have a planetary crisis and they don’t have a clue any more than anybody else, what to do about it. I think they’re also sincere, they’re also looking for answers and ayahuasca can be very helpful to them.
39:06 We have get to a point where we can have this conversations with people who normally we walk across the street to avoid as a certain sense or people who are not like us. There’s always, there’s common ground between almost all people. And that’s what we have to build on. Now I don’t know, you look at politics and know the current situation and you might not think so, I mean I don’t know, I’ve kind of given up on politics. It’s just as a puzzle to me why the most willfully ignorant people, people who are actually proud of their stupidity seem to get into these positions of political power, I don’t know if that’s a reflection on their constituents, they think their constituents are all stupid, obviously they are stupid enough to elect them or, I don’t know. But that’s another.
40:02 Lorna: Yeah, yeah, we could go on about.
40:04 Dennis: Little detour there that we don’t want to get suck into.
40:08 Lorna: I do want to be mindful of time because we’re coming up to the end of our segment and I have a few last due questions I want to ask you. I love to ask this question especially of a visionary researchers like you. So tell me, in your thirty years of exploring plant hallucinogens, what was the most visionary, out of this world experience that you’ve had, how did effect you and what did you learn from it?
40:35 Dennis: Well, that’s a hard one to say. You have to read my book, you have to read my book.
40:42 Lorna: Just a tidbit so we could know to buy your book.
40:44 Dennis: Okay, well it’s explained, it’s described in great detail in the book. But when I was working with the UDV, I was. In 1991 I attended a conference in Rio, I believe it was São Paulo and it was hosted by the UDV that, União do Vegetal, which is one of these syncretic churches, from Brazil. And it was a conference about many aspects of ayahuasca, this was back in 91’. So there were anthropologist, chemist, botanists and so on and I was a recently minted graduate student so I had published on ayahuasca and I was invited to come to this thing and after this three day conference they got everyone together in their temple at the end of conference, conference which held like a summer camp kind of place right next door to the temple. So everyone got in to this temple and took ayahuasca, that’s the end of the conference, this was the big finale. And there were about five hundred people in this temple that took it.
41:55 Lorna: There’s a lot of people drinking ayahuasca together. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a group that big.
42:00 Dennis: It was.
42:00 Lorna: A lot.
42:03 Dennis: Amazing. It was amazing, I mean you couldn’t have heard a pin dropped in this place. But anyway, I had my first really strong encounter with ayahuasca, I had taken it before in Peru, never really connected with it to this extent that I did there. I guess I wasn’t just ready for it and I had a vision about photosynthesis in about, it was a vision of photosynthesis which is the process of the plants do collecting the energy of the sun and using that to make organic chemistry to make food essentially, that’s the whole process that drives the biosphere, that keeps the, that brings energy in from the sun, from outer space and puts it in to a usable form that life can use. Dylan Thomas called this the green fuse that drives the flower and it’s quite true, it’s very apt, it is a fuse, the plants have evolve this ability to grab energy, to harness energy and to use it to, I mean it’s a fundamental process, it’s kind of a miracle in the sense that everything depends on it, there would be no life on earth if it wasn’t for this. So what I got was a front row seat, actually kind of the front of the rollercoaster, actually. The first car in the rollercoaster and it took me through this molecular journey through the process of photosynthesis. In which.
43:36 Lorna: So where you a cell in a plant experiencing photosynthesis? Was that the experience?
43:42 Dennis: I was a water molecule in a plant going through the process of photosynthesis. Because, yeah, the reactant in photosynthesis are water and carbon dioxide and sunlight, right? And in the process of photosynthesis, the plant uses the power of sunlight to split water to actually ionize water so that you got, and the byproduct of that is oxygen, lucky for us because that just escapes and that’s what we live on but then it uses those two hydrogens from water, the H2O, it uses the two hydrogens to reduce carbon dioxide into an organic compound. And that’s the miracle right there. It fixes carbon and that’s the process that removes carbon out of the atmosphere, that’s why deforestation is having such an impact on global warming because we’re cutting down the trees that fix all that carbon.
44:47 Lorna: So how did it feel to be a photosynthesizing water molecule?
44:51 Dennis: It was terrifying. It was terrifying. Because I found myself on a conveyor belt where I was inside the chloroplast, inside the cell being shuttled along with all these other molecules and this bolts of lightning were coming down in front of me and totally smashing this water molecules into smithereens and I was one of them.
45:15 Lorna: Oh my god, how long did it last for? It sounds awful.
45:20 Dennis: I don’t know. No, it was actually wonderful.
45:23 Lorna: Oh it was both awful and wonderful. It sounds terrifying and wondrous.
45:26 Dennis: It was terrifying and wonderful but it was very, very moving. Because throughout the experience I was given this narrative of what was happening and it was sort of, this was kind of a trip to I guess plant biochemist nerds have. If you understand the process as a little bit, I was given this narration “okay, now you’re going through photosystem one and this is what’s happening and now you’re on photosystem two.” And all of that and sort of this guide, literally this voice beckoned over my left shoulder kind of explaining to me what was going on and it was very moving because at the end it I had this whole thing about the Amazon and this whole sad feeling that what is going to happen to us. We’re doomed if we destroy the Amazon, how come we be doing this? And that was my sense, but then the reassuring voice literally came at me with this, what I said before, you monkeys only think you’re running things, that’s what it said to me. In English. So many words and it said that. It said “you don’t think we’re going to let this happen, do you?” And then it was extremely cathartic to me because then I realized “no we’re not running things, we’re not running things at all.” This plant wisdom that envelops the planet and nurtures the planet and keeps life going on the planet. They’re running things. And thank god they are because when they stop running things we’re in big trouble. So that was kind of a message and it was extremely moving and it was despair and redemption and it was a fantastic experience. I mean I have had other experiences but that’s what stuck with me and I’ve read about it and yeah, and I have adopted what it told me as kind of my own mantra. This thing about “you monkeys only think you’re running things.” And it’s true.
47:36 Lorna: So how does your visionary experiences connected you with your life purpose, Dennis?
47:42 Dennis: Well I guess I mean in various ways its complex, but it’s probably I have feel I have become a spokesman for ayahuasca in this point of view and in the process I have to become a spokesman for the real threats that face out planetary ecosystem, especially Amazon ecosystem, so on the philosophical side or on the public side, I guess I’m a crusader, a spokesman and a speaker about these things. And on the scientific side, I mean before any of this happened I was just, as resulted by work with indigenous people and spending time in the Amazon. I’m just very interested in all that biodiversity down there, I mean there’s, there are trillions of dollars’ worth of new medicines to be found on the Amazon. There are new foods that nobody has used. There’s all sorts of resources that could be explored and developed in a way that would improve life on earth, improve many peoples life. But it has to happen from within an ethical frame work. Right? Because you have to acknowledge and give back something to the indigenous people that have been the keepers of this knowledge for so long. And the usual model up to now has been the corporate predator model. I mean corporations come in and they’ll take the plants and they’ll go and investigate them, patent them, make billion dollar drugs out of them. Did the indigenous people ever get even a tiny slice of that pie? No, it’s very rare that they give anything back. That’s bio piracy. Right? We can’t be doing this from a stand point of bio piracy. It’s just not right. So we have to find ways to empower indigenous people, or somehow at least acknowledge the indigenous people and the plant themselves I dare say should have a place at the table. I don’t know if you know about the work of the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council.
49:52 Lorna: You know I’ve come across that organization in my research around in plant medicines and in psychedelic thought leaders so to speak. Tell me more about this organization.
50:06 Dennis: Well, they’re relatively new organization, they’ve been around about two years, they’re non-profit and basically the people that have founded it come out the fair trade NGO sector. They have been involved in fair trade and sustainable development of crops, like coffee and chocolate and so on. And that’s their expertise and their ethical stands. Basically they have a double agenda, they want to ensure the sustainability and the quality of ayahuasca and other sacred medicines. They want to foster the propagation of ayahuasca because so many people want it now. Supplies are actually, well they’re not about to disappear, but there is pressure on them in certain places. So they want to address that, they also want to address best practices for this retreat centers. And they want to essentially through volunteerism and transparency and consensus and dialog. They want to give this retreat centers a chance to voluntarily adhere to some agreed upon best practices. Some pretty common sense things really, that we’re not going to molest women, we’re not going to make odd brews that have things like toé and other ingredients in them that really don’t need to be there for, unless.
51:35 Lorna: Toé you mean datura?
51:37 Dennis: Yeah, like datura. So that’s it. That’s their basic stance and then they’re trying to do it through dialog, they’re developing this ayahuasca health guide, which I think is a good thing, and again it’s something that they see a need to do but they invite people to give their input, I like it that they’re, it’s not like that they don’t want to be the ayahuasca police and they can’t be anyway. They want to foster a sense of collaboration and cooperation among all this different stakeholders and that ranges from people that grow it to indigenous shamans, to tourist, to people that come down and set up this centers. Ultimately this medicine and the activities that have grown up around it are good things and they just want sort of create opportunities to maximize the good and minimize the abuses which I don’t suppose you’ll ever get away with or away from completely.
52:44 Lorna: Yeah, I really think it’s good to have a set of guide lines. You know I think especially when, as part of this conversation we’ve had about the old world meets the new world, I mean one of the things that the indigenous shamans and the elders are not prepared to deal with is a fact that a lot of the Westerners that are showing up on their villages, that are traveling down to the Amazon, they may be on antidepressant drugs. And SSRI inhibitors. And someone that operates a center or a retreat center that deals more with the international community may know how to do the health screening and the health waiver and ask these questions but the elder shamans don’t know. So it’s good to have that dialog and to establish some basic set of guidelines that everyone can have a positive experience.
53:35 Dennis: Right, and that’s basically what they’re about. It’s to help with education, develop good practices sort of standards. They’re not going to force them to buy into them but if you want to be in, if you want to have the ESC seal of good practices on your doorstep or whatever.
53:58 Lorna: Yeah, that’s a huge trust factor, the biggest things for people, they don’t know who to go to, to drink ayahuasca because there’s so much wrapped around it, it’s like the spiritual safety, is the shaman really a shaman like a curandero or is he more like a brujo and then of course it’s the physical safety of whether or not you’re going to be served good medicine. There’s a lot that goes in to selecting who it is you drink ayahuasca with and where you go. I get people to ask me all the time and after having so many disappointing experiences in the West I no longer recommend groups in the West to drink with. I might recommend some centers down in South America in Brazil or in Peru but a lot of the people who are asking me more or not are going to be able to make that trip to go down there. So yeah I think it’s an excellent…
54:51 Dennis: There are some good places in North America too. I mean there are some good centers in North America. I don’t know, I don’t pretend to know of all of them but I know of a few where they’re doing good work but they have to be completely under the radar. Which is stupid.
55:07 Lorna: That’s the thing, you can’t figure out which centers are doing the good work because it’s not listed.
55:11 Dennis: Right.
55:12 Lorna: On their website and.
55:14 Dennis: No, no.
55:14 Lorna: It’s all word of mouth and then there’s the whole getting endorsements when everything’s all on the downlow. Yeah, there’s one center that I would recommend to people that I know that I think really hold a clean work. But yeah, it’s hard when everything’s kind of clandestine like that especially in North America.
55:39 Dennis: Right, right. So that’s one of the things that we need to do and actually that’s kind of happening. There’s one lawyer who helped the UDV and the Santo Daime get their recognition for using ayahuasca for religious practice in the States. So those religions are legal, they can use ayahuasca. Right? But not everybody wants to join one of those churches. I’m one of them, I’m not a church goer.
56:13 Lorna: Me neither.
56:15 Dennis: I did that when I was a kid but I’m done with that. But I am, well this lawyer that I’m working with, I’m a consultant, there are several other people, he’s trying to make the case, that curanderismo or vegetalismo as practiced in Peru, is a bonafide religious practice and it should be protected along with these other practices. It’s a tougher case to make because there’s no church, there’s no buildings, there’s no doctor and there’s no outfits… but it’s clearly a religious practice and so it should be protected and if they get that approved and that would effectively make these centers in the States legitimate and legal and I think that’s also a good thing. I think that you should try to interview Josh Wickerham. He’s one of the founders of the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council.
57:22 Lorna: Yeah, I would love to have an introduction to Josh and discover more about that work. I think recall seeing that organization top of my radar couple, maybe over a year ago when they were asking for people to participate in this dialog they were having.
57:38 Dennis: Well you know they just hosted this Ayahuasca conference in Ibiza.
57:45 Lorna: Oh, I was going to go to that. Actually my good friend Siâ Ku Huni Kuin, who’s the, I guess people would refer to him as chief, he’s a cacique of the Huni Kuin indigenous, well the Kaxinawá indigenous territories of upper Jordão in Brazil. And he was at that conference so I was kind of bum not to go but it was not in my trajectory around the world this time around. But yes, yes, maybe next year.
58:16 Dennis: It was a great conference. You should have been there, I was there, and it was very good. Well you don’t need introductions to Josh, I mean he’ll be happy to talk to you if you just write him at.
58:28 Lorna: Okay, alright, I’ll just.
58:29 Dennis: But I’m happy to give you an introduction but it’s not necessary. I mean he’ll talk to anybody, he’s the spokesman for ESC, that’s his job.
58:41 Lorna: Alright, alright. Well I wish there’s an intro because it was more personable but.
58:45 Dennis: Sure, no problem.
58:46 Lorna: Okay, also thank you so much for joining me today, I really appreciate your time and your stories and your insights and information. How can we best stay in touch with you Dennis?
58:58 Dennis: Well I have a, it’s not that easy, I have a website for my book which is called “The brotherhood of the screaming abys.” And you can order it from Amazon, you can order it from that website, and I have a Facebook page for that. So that’s probably the easiest way to get in touch with me as through that Facebook page.
59:22 Lorna: Fantastic.
59:24 Dennis: Or you can email me through the hefter research institute. So that’s firstname.lastname@example.org and they’ll pass it along I don’t want to give out my personal email although I probably, I don’t know. I’m buried in email all the time so it’s hopeless, I’m sure you know how that goes. But those are good ways to reach me, I’m not hard to reach.
59:53 Lorna: Alright, great, thank you so much Dennis. And you have a beautiful evening.
59:56 Dennis: Okay, you too. Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.